Inside the Work Wardrobes of Five Fabulous Men
Mark. The closet in Mark’s bedroom offers a glimpse into his three-decade career in finance. The 50-year-old has been collecting suits, bow ties, and scarves in yellow, orange, pink, and other rainbow hues since he started working for the bank in the 1980s. Today he has hundreds of these velvet, satin, and silk pieces. Mark’s clothing choices “always [make] a statement at work” even though they “[aren’t] meant to be a statement.” His vibrant outfits express who he is: “It’s not like every day I wake up and I think, ‘I’m going to be a fashion plate.’ It’s just what am I doing…. My clothes go with my personality; I have always been outspoken.”
Mark’s privilege as a white man or as a seasoned professional doesn’t protect him from routine jabs and jeers at work. Reflecting on these all-too-frequent encounters, he remembers one time when he wore a sparking yellow satin bow tie. His boss passed him in the hallway and jokingly asked, “Do you have some sort of audition?” Mark remembers being surprised at the comment because he “had on a blue blazer, gray pants, and a white shirt. But this yellow bow tie. It was like, ‘You’re weird.’” Although Mark has seen more straight men as his bank “rocking color” over the past decade, it is often restricted to neckties and socks. His vibrant outfits continue to “make people uncomfortable” because he is “stepping outside of the boundary of the blue suit, blue tie, white shirt.” To avoid being the target of stares and jokes, he’ll often tone down his workwear.
Nigel. The sixth-grade teacher typically does not differentiate between the clothes he wears on a Monday morning in his classroom and those on a Saturday night on the dance floor of a gay club. Drawing on his self-described “gender-more” aesthetic when assembling outfits, the black 30-year-old mixes conventional men and women’s clothing pieces into a single look. He will layer a women’s sequined top under a men’s leather jacket, for example, or a basketball jersey with maroon faux-fur pants. Nigel sees his style not only as self-expression but as vital to his job: “As a teacher, wearing the clothes I do gives kids a space to explore their identity and gender.”
Nigel’s use of clothing as self-discovery and education has not always been met with fanfare from his principal. Pulling out a pair of fluorescent pink tights from his closet, he remembers pairing them with a sequined halter top one morning for work. His instinct was that “this is not professional,” and so he wore a blazer on top because “blazers change everything.” His principal, however, pulled him aside at school because she thought the outfit was “unprofessional” for the classroom. While Nigel explains that his principal was “really sensitive” in how she handled the conversation, it nonetheless caused him to give his work outfits a double take — “I’ve got to check what I wear.”
Richard. Forty-seven-year-old Richard shares a closet with his wife, but his clothes take up two of their three shelves. The physician of Scottish heritage has a penchant for mixing bold prints and patterns, and also enjoys wearing fitted silhouettes. However, he will tone down his outfits based on whom he is meeting that day. When Richard is invited to give a talk to other physicians, he “intentionally wears a jacket that is less fitted and looks more conventional” because he does not want his style to detract from the credibility of his presentation. His fellow physicians are “mostly an older generation,” and Richard believes they hold more conventional views about men’s clothing styles. Although blazers are typical men’s attire, body-conscious cuts and vibrant prints are not.
Richard’s caution over whether to disrupt masculine dress codes stems from his coworkers’ reactions to his clothes. When Richard wore a blazer, shirt, and tie in varying tones of red to a staff meeting, a male colleague remarked: “I wish I could pull of wearing that kind of clothing.” Even though Richard dismisses the experience as “a pretty minor thing,” he still recalls that “I wasn’t wearing stiletto heels or something, but a comment was made about it,” which he perceived as “a push on my expression” — causing him to rethink his clothing choices for work.
Harry. It has been five years since 53-year-old Harry completed his gender confirmation surgery. The Caucasian professor’s everyday wardrobe consists of vibrant nail polish, sequined accessories, and shirts with homemade queer graphics. He styles these feminine pieces alongside more masculine ones, such as sneakers, dark denim, and navy blazers. Through these wardrobe balancing acts, Harry explains that he is able to “dress in a way which allows room for me to tweak that identity, which can come through me being perfectly put together in the suit, but then still tell some that I’m trans.”
Harry’s balancing acts sway toward fabulousness when he is teaching or meeting with students. However, his outfits edge toward more masculine dress norms for important work occasions. When Harry was shortlisted for a leadership position, he decided to wear a white dress shirt and gray business suit, sans fun nails or accessories, because he wanted to resist transphobia and fit into the hiring committee’s assumptions about “who is a leader, who is responsible, what that type of person looks like.” According to Harry, “suits are an expression of formality and a type of seriousness that fits into conventional systems of what’s serious and who is serious.”
Olu. Two closets line the back of Olu’s bedroom. Sequined coats, lamé tops, and cheetah-print pants peek out from the rivets on the folding doors. The 35-year-old, an actor and cabaret performer of Haitian background, works outside of a formal organization where coworkers and managers could more tightly scrutinize gendered appearance codes. Moreover, in his creative field, originality and creativity are not only assets but are harnessed to establish professional credibility: “As a performer, your job is to get people to clap and respond to what you’re doing. Clothes like this…get them revved up.”
Although Olu spends most of his time in rehearsals or onstage, he often meets with investors about securing funding for his shows. These businessmen are primarily decked out in “three-piece suits,” but Olu does not mimic their style. However, Olu is conscious that his more fabulous outfits can “disrupt them from their thoughts of why they are there,” and so he will “wear something more muted,” such as a dark blazer over a sequined or leopard-print top. As he explains, “At the end of the day, if they’re going to give you money for something, there are things that have to be looked out for.”